Dam failure in Michigan – American Rivers statement

May 20, 2020

Contact: Amy Kober, 503-708-1145

A dam failed in Michigan yesterday, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. The Edenville Dam, which failed, and the Sanford Dam, which was compromised, are on the Tittabawassee River, a tributary of the Saginaw River. The failures followed days of heavy rainfall and sent floodwaters into downstream communities. Residents of Edenville, Midland and Sanford were evacuated.

“A dam failure and flood during a pandemic is a worst-case scenario. The immediate focus must be on ensuring public health and safety,” said Bob Irvin, President and CEO of American Rivers.

The Edenville Dam, a hydroelectric dam built in 1924, was plagued for years by concerns and safety violations. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked its license in 2018 due to concerns that the dam could not withstand a significant flood and lack of action by the dam’s owner to address those concerns over many years. FERC first flagged problems for the dam’s owner in 1999.

Dam safety scares have forced evacuations of downstream communities in recent years in California, Nebraska, South Carolina, and now Michigan.

“This is not an isolated incident, Irvin said. “Climate change is bringing more severe flooding, at a time when our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. It’s essential that we act now to invest in our rivers to protect public safety, improve our economy and strengthen our communities. This means shoring up necessary oversight and safety regulations, while also increasing funding for smart water infrastructure, including dam removal.”

American Rivers highlighted three priority actions:

  1. Increase, don’t decrease, public safety and environmental safeguards – The safety of federally licensed hydropower dams is overseen by FERC.  While FERC revoked the dam’s license in 2018 due to safety concerns, that clearly was not enough to prevent this week’s catastrophe.  Moreover, on the same day the dams failed, President Trump signed a new executive order to roll back more regulations under the guise of restarting the economy. Further gutting the regulations that safeguard human lives and safety and protect the environment is the wrong way to produce a sustainable economic recovery.
  2. Strengthen evaluation and enforcement – Michigan has a working dam safety program.  Even so, state dam safety offices are historically underfunded with a limited number of staff responsible for inspecting thousands of dams. We must improve these efforts by making it the responsibility of dam owners to inspect and maintain their dams; requiring more frequent, detailed inspections of deficient dams and increasing penalties for unsafe dams and violations; and, requiring dam owners to ensure that funds are available to repair or remove dams in the event they can’t or won’t meet safety standards. As communities continue to grow and development expands, many dams may also be misclassified as infrastructure and development increases downstream.
  3. Increase funding for dam removal and water infrastructure – Dam removal can be the best way to address a dam that poses a safety risk. There are tens of thousands of dams across the country that no longer serve the purpose they were built to provide and whose removal could eliminate the cost and liability associated with owning a dam. Unless they are well maintained, their condition only gets worse every year. The most cost-effective and permanent way to deal with obsolete, unsafe dams is to remove them.